Why the IHSA ditched its old football playoffs seeding system for a new one

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

The Illinois High School Association is changing the way it seeds its football playoffs.

The IHSA's board of directors voted Monday to seed teams in the state's eight classes 1 through 32. Previously, the state's smallest six classes were split into two 16-team north and south divisions and then seeded, a move designed to cut down on travel. 

The old split for years had created lopsided championship games.

Northern teams have a record of 13-2 in Class 1A, 2A and 3A state title games the last five years, winning those games by an average of 24 points. In November, all eight classes were won by teams from the northern bracket, although the 7A and 8A were already seeded 1-32.

“I wouldn’t say that pushed it over the edge, but coaches around the state liked this concept of 1 through 32,” said Sam Knox, the IHSA executive director in charge of football. "It allows the best teams to advance deeper in the playoffs. It’s been a topic for many years. I won’t say coaches were lined up outside our door to go to bat for this, but they talked about it and this year it rose to the football committee and was approved by our board.”

North vs. south: Why the IHSA needs to change its football playoff structure

The football playoffs were divided on a north-south basis to cut down travel in the six smallest classes. It wasn’t previously used in 7A and 8A because most of those schools were already closely bunched in the north.

Not the first seed change

This is not the first time the IHSA has altered its seeding system for football.

The last time the Illinois playoff teams were seeded 1 to 32 was in 2001, the first year of eight-class football. In 2002, the IHSA went to a quadrant system, separating each of the classes into four groups of eight teams each.

In 2006, the IHSA moved to allow for some brackets to be split into two halves of 16 teams, assuming such a move did not create longer travel distances for playoff opponents. That same year, 7A and 8A went exclusively to two 16-team brackets.

The quadrant system went away in 2015, replaced by 16-team halves for the six smallest classes. That is when 7A and 8A also moved to the 1 to 32 seeding that now will be used by all classes. 

Farmington head coach Toby Vallas speaks to players after their win against Tremont on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. The Farmers beat the Turks 35-12.

Farmington coach likes the change

The IHSA had never claimed dividing the state in half by north and south made for equal football playoff pairings.

“People from the IHSA have always said, ‘We don’t care who gets to state. We just want the right state champions. We don’t care about the matchups. It’s not about entertainment.’ But you do want the matchup,” Farmington coach Toby Vallas said. “If it wasn’t entertainment, it wouldn’t be on TV. And it means a lot to your town to get to state. It means a lot to your players.”

Still, even with the north-south split, Farmington played Winnebago — which is 2 hours and 44 minutes away — three times in the first round in five years from 2013 to 2018. And Vallas says that’s OK.

“People talk about travel, but you see teams go 8-man and they are traveling two hours plus,” Vallas said of the 24 schools that switched to 8-man football the last few years because of declining enrollments. “And all the 1A and 2A taems are traveling further because those 8-man teams are disappearing (from their schedules). Nobody loves to travel, but in football that’s going to be an ever-changing thing.

“And Friday nights are a community event. Everybody wants to go. It’s when you think about Tuesday night volleyball games and everybody has school the next day that it’s a thing. It’s not as big a deal in football.”

Vallas has led Farmington to a 45-2 record in the regular season the last six years but, playing in the north, has never reached the state title game, playing in 2A and 3A.

'Definitely a dynasty':Lena-Winslow runs past Carrollton for fifth IHSA state title

Tough on the NUIC

The north-south split has been especially tough on NUIC not-quite-champions. NUIC teams are 14-1 in Class 1A and 2A state title games since 2005. And most of those champs have had to play at beat at least two other conference rivals in their first three playoff games. This year, Lena-Winslow lost to Forreston in the final game of the regular season, then beat Forreston two weeks later en route to winning its fifth state title in 12 years.

“Even with the whole state seeded 1 through 32, Forreston and Lena-Winslow may still play each other in the first or second round,” Knox said, “but generally teams will be playing someone away from their area of the state.”

The IHSA briefly tried seeded 1 through 32 in the late 1990s and that’s what happened when Knox was an assistant coach at Mendon Unity, which lost two weeks in a row to Carthage.

The Stillman Valley football head coach Mike Lalor, left, watches his team practice on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at Stillman Valley High School in Stillman Valley. The team is hoping to rebound in the playoffs after a big loss in the last game of the regular season.

But it should happen much less now that the artificial north-south dividing line has been erased.

Illinois playoffs:How the IHSA selects its playoff teams

“The greatest example is in the northwest part of Illinois,” said Mike Lalor, who has coached Stillman Valley to five Class 2A and 3A state titles. “Lena-Winslow basically has to play a conference tournament every year. It will be exciting to truly get out there and play different people throughout the whole thing.

“With eight classes, the basic math is there are only so many schools in your class in the northern half of the state so you are usually going to see the same people. We made a trip down to Springfield once and really enjoyed it. It was a long trip, but we got to show our kids a totally different style of play.”

Lalor said he was “really surprised” by the IHSA move, which was announced Monday. Surprised but pleased.

“I didn’t think it was going to even be considered, but I really like it,” Lalor said. “It adds a lot of excitement to the playoffs.”

Other coaches weigh in

The surprise factor was the one part of the move that Aaron Kunz didn't like. The veteran Williamsville coach has been on both sides of the north/south divide. He won the 2019 title coming out of the south, edging Byron 46-42 in Class 3A, and lost 20-17 to Wilmington in 2014 when Williamsville came out of the south.

"We're in central Illinois, so travel is not nearly as big for us as for teams that are north and south and might have to travel 250 miles in Week 1," Kinz said. "But we had no idea this was on the docket and was even a possibility. I wish more voices could have been heard, but I think it will be exciting. It should make for a really fun playoff pairings night."

Said coach Jeff Boyer of Class 3A state champion Byron: "Part of what makes the playoffs so exciting is getting to play new people. This presents a lot of scenarios where everyone is going to play someone new. That is great."

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge